In the wake of the Ballou Senior High School attendance scandal, one organization said that chronic absenteeism is a symptom of a larger issue.
DC Fiscal Policy Institute said Ballou is not an isolated incident and reflects the effects of the city’s underinvestment in the support of its students.
“It would be shortsighted to look at the problems at Ballou High School as an isolated scandal: one school alone cannot remedy decades of economic inequality and racial injustice,” the institute said in a statement following a D.C. Council hearing on graduation rate accountability in December. “Chronic absenteeism is widespread across public schools, and reflects the enormous challenges faced by too many D.C. students and their families—unhealthy environments, housing instability, food insecurity, and the stress of living paycheck to paycheck, as a Ballou student so poignantly expressed.”
The institute also contends that the attendance problem stems from the District’s failure to follow through on equitable distribution of resources among schools.
“D.C. schools are supposed to get additional resources, through ‘at-risk’ funds, to target resources for low-income students and students who are struggling academically,” the institute said in a statement. “Yet DCPS schools have been underfunded, forcing schools to misuse nearly half of ‘at-risk’ dollars for basic staff positions, rather than supports for the students who need them most, like meaningful credit recovery programs.”
At the accountability hearing, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson testified to councilman David Grosso, chairman of the council Committee on Education, that “a number of issues have been raised that touch on matters central to our work — what progress our students are really making and the integrity with which we, as adults, act.”
Wilson said the situation at Ballou has raised a number of important questions:
– Were students given diplomas or grades they hadn’t earned, particularly in cases where students were out of school a great deal of time?
– Did anyone, at any level of the school system, pressure or encourage staff to pass students, to raise grades, or otherwise to credit academic progress that wasn’t genuine?
– Are we doing enough to respond to the needs of students on the threshold of dropout and failure – particularly those who are chronically absent or carrying multiple failing grades?
“One of the central questions is how it was possible for so many students to graduate despite apparently missing enormous amounts of school,” Wilson said. “It’s not news to anyone here that truancy is an ongoing and deep concern across the District of Columbia. I was struck by it on arriving in D.C. I have worked in many urban school districts — from Denver to Oakland — and none had such high truancy rates.
“The attendance problems have been well documented by both OSSE and DCPS reports in the past, and we have had several council hearings on the issue, most recently this fall,” he said. “Our students miss school for many reasons, including, but not limited to, employment so they can provide for their families, the responsibilities of parenthood, and lack of transportation.”
The chancellor said along with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer Niles on the Every Day Counts! initiative to encourage attendance among students and parents.
“Attendance is both a symptom and a cause of many of our students’ educational challenges, and I’m glad to have the mayor as an ally in taking this issue seriously,” Wilson said.
Marlana Wallace, education policy analyst at the institute, said chronic absenteeism can be thwarted with some important steps.
“As a start, the District should make sure that every dollar intended to provide additional resources for low-income and academically struggling students actually goes to help those students,” she said.